Monday, 5 January 2009

The Reader

The first of the new year's surge of potential Oscar-contenders, The Reader has been widely bigged up both officially (press) and unofficially (word-of-mouth) as a terrific movie + gong-in-the-bag for Kate Winslet.

I don't subscribe (spoilers may follow).

Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser, or The Reader (which I haven't read) is clearly a book about the difficulty of dealing with the memory of the Holocaust. Stephen Daldry's film sticks to this. The Reader's not about the Holocaust but about how those - and specifically, those Germans - caught up in its aftermath deal with that memory.

Immediately Daldry faces a serious but potentially interesting problem. The film he wants to make has a number of very interesting issues and dramas which all revolve around this one dreadful historical episode; the specific story in the film has a specific episode. Yet we are never shown this episode. In a film conspicuous for its use of flashback to not only tell the story clearly but also to tease the audience (the flashbacks are selective in order to heighten tension and conceal twists) there is no flashback for the episode, related in a war crimes tribunal, in which Hanna Schmitz is alleged to have committed her crime.

This may be Daldry making a subtle point about having to rely on testimony. That's all very well but he's used flashback for so much else that has happened this seems like a self-negating gesture. Worse - and this is a separate issue from those of the film, but just as important - he has omitted the dramatic heliocentre of his narrative solar system.

It's interesting that a number of my friends and colleagues have remarked at how moving the film was. I was also moved. Irritatingly though, I was moved by my own agenda, by considering the characters' potential for regret, betrayal, loss and pathetic insufficiency in the face of history. None of this was given to me by the film, even if it was intended. I admire - actually, I love a film that provides a proportion of a story's content but tells it in such a way that the audience is able to construct the rest through its own imagination. Daldry's film also wants the audience to cogitate on the open ends of narrative and drama - unfortunately it doesn't point the direction in which it intends it's bulk to be chewed over.

Consequently one leaves the film with questions - not about memory, literacy, humanity, love and society but about the film. Instead of opening out we burrow in. So: illiteracy aside, why did Schmitz want Michael to read to her? Why was Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in the huge critical success Der Untergang or Downfall, cast as the sagacious law professor? Why does Schmitz lie about her illiteracy? Why does Michael remain silent about her illiteracy? What's the significance of The Lady and the Little Dog?

Daldry is a player because of the success of Billy Elliot which is a wonderful, if straightforward film but his insider calling card is The Hours, the Michael Cunningham adaptation which covers the lives of three women in different circumstances of history. This film is a highly evocative, magic-realist patina of impressions and episodic dramas, only tenuously related to one another. The Reader takes this approach but it is the wrong one, requiring a much more carefuly focused sense of storytelling and investigation.

If you go and see the film you may be moved as I was. In which case I recommend that you bear in mind the words form the crucial (and characteristically mishandled) penultimate showdown in which the adult Berg is told by Holocaust survivor Ilana Mather "My advice is – go to the theatre if you want catharsis."


Framescourer said...

David Cox has written a piece in today's Guardian which does a much better (if somewhat sharp) job of finding the shortcomings of The Reader than I have above.

Framescourer said...

Now Winslet's gone and won a best supporting Golden Globe for The Reader. There goes my 'Vera Farmiga for Best Supporting Oscar' prediction into the bargain *sigh*

Framescourer said...

David Hare is in danger of beginning a spat with the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw over this film, for which Hare wrote the screenplay. This Blogger is surprised to find himself coming down on the side of Bradshaw for once.